Winds of change in Latin America

I have re-found an article I wrote a couple of years ago for the BOND newsletter – here it is below. In it I exhort the western development community (the main readers of the newsletter) to ‘catch up’ with movements in the south, particularly South America. But I also note that African social movements should be checking out developments over the Atlantic. This is still very much the case. Given the swing to the soft left in Latin America, with new and creative ideas for how to manage and turn the tide of neoliberalism, it strikes me as odd that there is still so little cross-pollination of ideas between Africa and the Latins. In particular, the unique nature of Latin America’s social movements makes them an interesting model for other continents to look at, particularly Africa, where a relatively weak civil society is one of the reasons for slow progress on human rights and poverty reduction.

Every country in South America, except Colombia (a real exception because of its devastating internal conflict), is today run by a left-of-centre government. The picture is more balanced through Central America but if gone left in July – and it still just about might as protests against alleged fraud continue – the rejection of neo-liberalism in Latin America would have been almost complete. The IMF, architect of twenty years of failure to tackle poverty, is being paid off and, where possible, asked politely to leave.

The New Left (with the possible exception of Hugo Chavez’s self-proclaimed ‘revolution’ in Venezuela) is marked by a rejection of ideology and a refreshing appreciation of the complexity of linking growth, stability and poverty reduction. Learning from past mistakes, and even from some of neo-liberalism’s successes, it has embraced fiscal prudence as pro-poor, while at the same time getting actively involved in the market-place.

If, as many hope and expect, the creative policies of this new wave of leaders lead to a faster reduction in poverty and inequality than in the last two decades (not that hard, actually!) it will be largely thanks to the successful mobilisation of social movements. Bolivia is the most recent and obvious example of this trend – Evo Morales leads a government packed with former road blockers who appear as impressive in ministerial armchairs as standing by burning lorries. But even more moderate governments, like those in Brazil and Uruguay, have relied on strong social movements to ensure their transition to power.

The growth and increasing organisation of social movements in many southern countries is one of the most important dynamics of the present era. With so much uncertainty over what is actually necessary for pro-poor sustainable development, something we can all be pretty sure of is that a strong civil society, holding government and private sector more and more to account, is one thing that will speed our world’s progress towards justice.

Most new and emerging African social movements are not nearly as strong as those in Latin America, which raises serious doubts whether the type of political transformation necessary to ‘make poverty history’ in Africa will happen any time soon, irrespective of whether aid is double, debt is cancelled or donors stop forcing countries to open their markets.

So what can the NGO community in the North do to help? First we need to make working in solidarity with social movements in poor countries one of the main objectives of our work. There has been a big shift over the years in the perceived role of Northern NGOs, from primarily providing charity to an increasing focus on structural change. But so far we have focused most of our attention on trying to persuade the powerful in the North to act in the interests of the poor in the South.

While this is an important part of the jigsaw, the changes in Latin America underline the fact that the key to long term improvements in the lives of poor people is the development of movements and organisations representing their interests, coming up with sensible answers to difficult problems, and standing up to power when it blocks progress.

We must change the way we judge our successes. Traditionally we have sought to quantify campaigning success in ‘deliverables’, such as how much the G8 promises to give as aid. That is important. But so often the promises of Northern powers do not come to fruition, or what appear to be acts of generosity metamorphose into new acts of imperialism – the self-serving conditionalities attached to aid and debt relief are the most obvious example.

So we need to judge our wins in more than simple financial terms. How much have we supported the growth of movements for change, we should ask, and how has the power balance shifted? Sustainable change will come only if those who have little power today have more power tomorrow.

Politics matters. History happens slowly. We are behind southern social movements in our analysis of what creates real and long lasting change – and some of them are beginning to ask what we are up to. We need to catch up.

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